One of my favorite radio programs (though I listen to it as a podcast) is Radiolab, “ a show about science,” which is a production of WNYC hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abmurad and distributed by NPR. This show contemplates lots of interesting things from reason versus logic in decision making to laughter to lies and deception.
The show I listened to last night was about how memories are formed. Over time, several analogies have developed for human memory that seem to be related to the technology available at that time. Robert said he thinks of his memory as a filing cabinet. But Jad, who is somewhat younger than Robert, described his mind as a computer hard disk. Neurologists and cognitive scientists they talked to, though, said No, memory isn’t like that at all. In fact, we don’t store memories. We recreate them every time we think of them.
Huh, I thought. Knowing this has implications for user research. For example, there are several points at which usability testing relies on memory: the memory of the participant if we’re asking questions about the past behavior; the memory of the facilitator for taking notes, analyzing data, and drawing inferences; the memories of observers in discussions about what happened in sessions and what it means.
Using a think-aloud technique – getting participants to say what they’re thinking while working through a task – avoids some of this. You have a verbal protocol as “evidence.” If there’s disagreement about what happened among the team members, you can go back to the recording to review what the participant said as well as what they did.
But there are times when think-aloud is not the right technique, either because the participant cannot manage the divided attention of doing a task and talking about it at the same time, or because of other circumstances. In those situations, you might think about doing retrospective review, instead.
“Retrospective review” is just a fancy name for asking people to tell you what happened. If you have the tools and time available, you can go to a recording after a session, so the participant can see what she did and respond to that by giving you a play-by-play commentary.
As soon as participants start viewing or listening to the beginning of an episode – up to 48 hours after doing the task – they’ll remember having done it. They probably won’t be able to tell you how it ended. But they will be able to tell you what’s going to happen next.
And that’s the really useful thing about doing retrospective review. As the participant recreates the memory of the task, you can ask, “What happens next? What will you do next and why?” Pause. Listen. Take notes. And then start playing back the recording again. Sure enough, it’ll be like the participant said. Only now you know why.
Asking participants what happens next in their own stories also avoids most revisionist history. That is, if you ask participants to explain had what happened after they view it, they may rationalize what they did. This isn’t the same as remembering it.